Saturday, August 16, 2008

Obama's Missed Opportunity at Saddleback Civil Forum

Ann Althouse notified folks today about Pastor Rick Warren's presidential forum, commenting on the format for Barack Obama and John McCain, that "if they aren't going to be on stage together, I'm not even going to watch." Althouse, being the ever-present online maven that she is, live-blogged the event anyway. It's a good thing too, because the meeting tonight at Orange County's Saddleback Church was one of the most compelling general election campaign telecasts in modern memory.

There's naturally going to be a few online gigabytes consumed tomorrow by analysis of the forum, and I may have additional observations then, but I thought I'd better make a couple of good points right now.

Some pre-event spin, for example, suggested that Reverend Warren was a poor host for the evening, either because his participation raised
troubling questions of separation of church and state (an issue Ross Douthat pretty much put to rest), or because Warren was totally partial to the GOP worldview, raising some debate as to whether Obama should even be in attendance for the showcase. As it turned out, however, Warren was tremendously congenial to both candidates, and for Barack Obama, his performance at the Saddleback event amounted to an enormous missed opportunity to ease the uncertainty that many Americans have regarding the Illinois Senator's basic values and vision for the nation.

Many commentators will, of course, focus on Obama's statements on abortion: The Illinois Senator, when questioned on the beginning of life, responded with extreme deliberation, ducking the question by saying that the right to life was "above his my pay grade." McCain, on the other hand, without equivocation, responded that life begins at "the moment of conception."

But even deeper questions of national purpose were in play, and this is where the stark generational and moral differences of campaign '08 will be contested and resolved.

In a question that Obama should have seen as perfectly pitched for a national security home run, Reverend Warren asked if there was evil in the world, and if so, how should we respond? Obama answered in the affirmative, saying, indeed, there is evil in the world, for example, in Darfur, and in the crimes of America's inner-cities. Of course, there's no questioning the presence of evil in both of those examples, but with the United States at war, and the issue of America's response to terrorism and naked aggression continuing as key controversies in debate on foreign policy, Obama's failure to mention the September 11 attacks, or our ongoing campaigns against Islamist nihilism in Iraq and South Asia, serves as a stark confirmation of the suspected postmodern sensibilities in the Democratic candidate that have engendered questions in Americans looking for judgement and moral clarity on the world's existential issues. It was almost disheartenting, for example, to hear Obama preface his comments with a harsh dose of moral relativism, when he suggested that "a lot of evil has been perpetrated ... in the name of good" (which I interpreted as a underhanded jab at the cotroversies surrounding the current deployment of American military power).

Senator McCain, with great contrast, responded without hesitation, indicating that real evil indeed exists in the world, and we should defeat it. Americans were shocked by the brutality of terrorism in 2001, and our soldiers are fighting that scourge in Iraq right now. McCain said, "If I have to go to gates and hell and back, I will get Osama Bin Laden, " and he asked with great emphasis, that if the al Qaeda terrorists who strapped suicide belts on innocent Iraqi women - sending them to their deaths moments later in firestorms of killing - did not constitute the modern face of evil, what did?

Tonight's forum was not an insignificant preview of the post-Labor Day campaign. The Saddleback Church event demonstrated without a doubt that on the big issues of importance, from abortion rights, to the economy and education, to national security and the war on terror, John McCain's comfort on the issues and his unambigous straight-talk style will pose huge hurdles for the cerebral, hesitant, and postmodern candidacy of Barack Obama.